The Supreme Court has ordered that if a worker dies while cleaning sewers, his family will have to pay a compensation of Rs 30 lakh to the government officials. The Supreme Court bench comprising Justice S Ravindra Bhat and Justice Arvind Kumar also said that Rs 20 lakh will be paid as minimum compensation to those who suffer permanent disability while cleaning sewers. If an employee suffers from any other disability while cleaning, he will get a compensation of Rs 10 lakh. The order also states that governments should ensure that the practice of manual scavenging is completely eliminated. This is not the first such order. But due to greed for labor at low cost, compulsion to fill their stomach and ignorance of common laborers about government laws, this inhuman act continues.
In the 2022 winter session of Parliament, Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale had told that in the last three years, 233 people have died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. In the last twenty years, 989 people have lost their lives while cleaning sewers in the country. The report of the National Safai Karmachari Commission says that from 1993 to February 2022, the maximum number of 218 people died in Tamil Nadu while cleaning sewers in the country. 153 deaths were recorded in Gujarat and 97 in Delhi. Sewers became the deathbed for 107 people in Uttar Pradesh, 84 in Haryana and 86 in Karnataka.
The cause of every such death is said to be poisonous gas from the sewer. Every time it is said that it is a case of negligence. The police completes its duties by registering a case against the contractor. People also call laborers from unplanned areas to clean the septic tank of their house. If any accident happens to them, their dependents neither get any compensation, nor do those who are negligent get any advice. Perhaps even the police do not know that awarding the contract for sewer cleaning in this manner is against the order of the High Court. The responsible people of the society never realized that it is inhumane to send innocent laborers into the sewer without technical knowledge and equipment to clean the hellhole.
It is an irony that the government and the Safai Karamcharis Commission do not pay attention to such deaths beyond shouting slogans to stop the inhuman practice of manual manual scavenging. The National Human Rights Commission and the Mumbai High Court had issued guidelines for cleaning sewers eight years ago, about which no one cares or knows. The government also brought an ordinance in 2008 making it mandatory to provide safety equipment to workers doing deep cleaning work. There are many laws and instructions from the Human Rights Commission regarding the safety of people who take the risk of cleaning the hellhole. But it is not anyone’s responsibility to follow them.
According to the instructions of the court, the sewer cleaning agency should have a map of the sewer line and data related to its depth. The ideal situation like daily record of sewer cleaning, regular health check-up of the people engaged in work, providing necessary safety equipment, regular training of the employees engaged in work, daily checking of waste falling in the sewer could never come beyond paper. . The latest order of the Supreme Court is powerful, but the problem is that in most of the cases there is no record of employing the workers. It is difficult to prove that a certain person was called or entrusted with this work by a certain person.
It is estimated that every year an average of one thousand people die of suffocation in sewers across the country. For those who survive suffocation, life becomes worse than hell due to the poisonous filth of the sewer. More than two lakh people in the country are engaged in the work of opening clogged sewers and removing silt and stones accumulated in manholes. These deep hellholes, which have been closed for many months, contain suffocating gases like carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulphide, methane. Knowing that there are deadly gases and chemicals inside, one person pushes another person inside without any protection or safety equipment, which is shameful.
A sewer cleaner is unable to work for more than 10-12 years because his body is no longer fit for work. There is a law in the country that sewer cleaners are required to provide gas tester, blower to throw out dirty air, torch, gloves, glasses and ear-covering cap, helmet. Mumbai High Court had directed that sewer cleaning work should not be done through contractors. After doing the cleaning work, it is also the responsibility of the executive agency to provide them clean drinking water, soap and water and space for bathing. But who believes them?
(These are the personal views of the author.)